A Reward for Good Behavior

By Vencat, Emily Flynn | Newsweek, October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Reward for Good Behavior


Vencat, Emily Flynn, Newsweek


Byline: Emily Flynn Vencat

A billionaire wants to give $5 million to African leaders who rule responsibly.

Mo Ibrahim's ideas have been labeled wacky before. A decade ago, when even American consumers were just getting used to cell phones, he decided that the real growth market was sub-Saharan Africa. "I'm not a visionary," says Ibrahim, 61, a Sudanese businessman who was raised in Egypt and now lives in London. "Things are obvious, but most of us just don't open our eyes." Celtel, the Pan-African telecom giant he created then, was sold to a Kuwaiti company in 2005 for $3.4 billion. Now Ibrahim wants to use that money for another big, possibly loopy gamble -- to pay African leaders to retire.

Next month, Ibrahim's eponymous foundation will announce the first winner of its Achievement in African Leadership Prize. It will be by far the world's most generous annual philanthropic prize, worth three times as much as the Nobel: the winner will receive $5 million -- spread out over 10 years -- and $200,000 per year beyond that, until death. Only democratically elected sub-Saharan leaders can qualify. They will be judged by how well they've performed in eight categories, including offering security to their citizens, as well as promoting the rule of law, economic opportunity and political freedom. And to collect, they will have to leave office when their term ends, with no clouds over their tenure.

Ibrahim is hoping the prize will give African leaders an alternative to raiding state coffers or dispensing with elections in order to cling to power. In the West, former heads of state can count on book deals, seats on corporate boards and lecture circuits to make them rich when they leave office. Some, like Bill Clinton, become such powerful global statesmen that their legacies are defined as much by what they do after office as what they did in it. Africa's heads of state, on the other hand -- with the single notable exception of Nelson Mandela -- typically have only a life of penury and insignificance to look forward to when they step down. Pensions are so small that some, like Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda, can't even afford to rent apartments in their own capital cities, says Ibrahim.

The new prize, which Ibrahim is funding entirely out of his estimated $1 billion fortune, is also meant as a way to take advantage of the skills African leaders have developed while in power. On top of the prize money, winners will be entitled to $200,000 a year to pursue philanthropic work.

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